Live Out Your Jane Austen-Inspired Dreams at This Irish Estate
Ballyfin's 248 hectare estate includes a conservatory, a grotto and a chandelier that once hung in the mansion of the Queen of Naples, sister to Napoleon I.
It’s a crisp spring morning when I arrive at Ballyfin Demesne. From the moment I pull up to the estate’s grand gates and long, winding driveway, I feel instantly swept away from the bustle of modern life and ensconced in a bygone era of tradition, romance and luxury. I spy hares and pheasants as well as miles of lush greenery and springtime bluebells.
Then I see the incredible main house.
Located in County Laois, 90 minutes from Dublin, Ballyfin is a grand Irish Regency mansion built as a residence in 1820 by the Coote family. The house was sold in 1928 to the Patrician Brothers, a Catholic teaching order that operated a school there for more than 70 years.
In 2002, Chicago couple Fred and Kay Krehbiel bought the property and spent the better part of a decade restoring it with the help of over 100 craftspeople. The glass conservatory required the most work because it was a wreck of broken glass, rust and overgrown vegetation. So it was dismantled and each piece numbered, tagged and shipped to England for repair. In addition, the school gymnasium and auditorium were demolished and a 150-metre-long tunnel running from the stables to the basement was installed so that delivery trucks could go about their business without harming the grounds or disturbing the guests.
The Krehbiels’ attention to detail paid off. Every lookout from the house is cinematic. There’s a dramatic canti-levered staircase overlooking a reception area lined with ancestral portraits of the Cootes. It leads to the staterooms, all of which are incredibly grand yet wonderfully intimate. The Gold Drawing Room is the perfect place to take afternoon tea while marvelling at the intricate gilded plasterwork and the lavish chandelier that once hung in the Paris mansion of the Queen of Naples, sister to Napoleon I.
Guest rooms and suites are designed to reflect the spirit of the original house, and many of the rooms feature ornate furnishings and fixtures from the Coote era. My retreat—The Maryborough Room—is one of the dreamiest. It’s situated at the front of the house, on the southeast corner, and boasts spectacular views.
The grounds of Ballyfin cover 248 hectares, which you can explore by foot, golf cart, bicycle or horse and carriage. During my three-day stay, I use all of the above means to explore the estate, which remains home to hidden waterfalls, a grotto, a medieval-style tower and walled gardens. (I even lost a shoe in the mud one day during my property wander, only to have it gallantly retrieved by head butler Lionel, as if I were the heroine in a Jane Austen novel.) Many of the 88 staff who work here are local residents (a few are former students of the school), and they are adept at making Ballyfin feel like your own house.
I discover that dinner is a grand affair. Over cocktails, I’m presented with the menu to consider the daily selections. (Most of the food is produced on the property or sourced locally.) I sample the best of everything on the eight-course tasting menu, which concludes with cheese. The cheese trolley is trundled tableside so I can select my cheese flights and accompaniments. This traditional experience feels very indulgent and distinctly Downton-esque. Ballyfin impresses with not only its majesty and grandeur but also its incredible heart. And, well, I can’t lie: It’s my second time here, and I’m currently plotting a third visit.